I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of the forthcoming Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin. This historical coming of age tale is set in the Minnesota resort town of Excelsior. It’s 1926, and sixteen-year old Garnet Richardson is spending summer with her haughty relatives in order to give her war veteran father the opportunity to deal with his PTSD. In her childhood years before the war, Garnet and her father bonded over the study and appreciation of birds, but in response to her mother’s wishes she has channeled her fierce scientific curiosity into a more ladylike pursuit: cutting silhouettes of the birds she encounters. Each chapter begins with the silhouette, common name, and Latin name of a different bird, and Griffin works that bird into the text in some way–some times more awkwardly than others, but the motif offers a strong thread that runs throughout the story.
Garnet’s world opens gradually during her summer away from home. At first, she is constrained by the behavior and expectations of her distant relative, Mrs. Harrington, and feels no connection with her daughter Hannah. Garnet lives a relatively idle life, although she is tempted by the amusement park and intrigued by the forbidden dance hall. She expects to return home, complete school, and likely marry the boy who’s been courting her persistently. But while in Excelsior, Garnet continues to educate herself about birds, meets and falls in love with the alluring dance hall girl Isabella, gets herself a job at a hat shop, and discovers that her future need not be as constrained as she’d envisioned.
It’s clear from Griffin’s meticulous scene-setting that she did a great deal of research into the 20s (see this post for details) and into birds, and the story greatly benefits from her diligence. She does a good job of playing out the tension between the social expectations for Garnet and the new opportunities opening up for her because of the historical era; when she receives a grade from her biology teacher and a suggestion that she consider applying to university, Garnet begins to realize that she might have more options than getting married. However, she also feels a strong responsibility to her family, which is disintegrating at a distance as Garnet undergoes her transformations.
I found Silhouette of a Sparrow a very quick and enjoyable read. It gave me a glimpse into a period of time that I was unfamiliar with, and had a range of engaging characters and a believable storyline. A secondary plot in which Garnet attempts to change her employer’s mind about using feathers from illegally poached birds is a little off-putting in its militant zeal, but doesn’t detract from the overall charm of Griffin’s book.